Coming soon to a theater near you: Anonymous, another blockbuster from Roland Emmerich, who brought you 2012, 10,000 B.C., The Day after Tomorrow, The Patriot, Independence Day, Eight-Legged Freaks and many other fine examples of historical drama. Anonymous promises political intrigue, conspiracy, a Not-Even-Close-to-Virgin Queen, incest and exciting, explosive quill action. Yes, that’s right, it focuses on the guy who really wrote Shakespeare. Well, no not really: it actually focuses on Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.
It’s interesting (or do I mean disheartening?) that the “authorship question” could have attained such acceptance that it has achieved Hollywood blockbuster funding, although it would be even more surprising to see advertisements for “Not Anonymous, the gripping story of how a competent actor and businessman who never killed anyone wrote the works attributed to him!” While it’s possible, even likely, that Emmerich’s film will convince some viewers, what’s more disturbing is the sympathetic platform the Oxfordians have been given by such prestigious media outlets as PBS’s Frontline, which aired “The Shakespeare Mystery” in 1989 (transcript here); NPR’s Morning Edition, which ran a story called “The Real Shakespeare? Evidence Points to Earl,” (host Renée Montagne was later presented with the Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award at the 13th Annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference); and the New York Times, which has run a series of Oxford-leaning “teach-the-controversy” articles by William S. Niederkorn.
I remember watching the Frontline episode when it was re-run and discussing it later with other English lit types. We were all terribly worried about Frontline. Was the quality of all their shows this bad? Did we simply not recognize it because it wasn’t our field? Would next week’s NOVA give a friendly ear to moon landing deniers?
I was also concerned because, while I was yelling at the screen about dubious assertions, part of me recognized that some of the arguments could sound convincing. An educated person, familiar with Shakespeare’s works but not an expert, might be swayed by some of the claims, not because the person was stupid or ignorant, but because the program was slanted. For instance, two scholars speak on behalf of Shakespeare in the show. Samuel Schoenbaum appears twice to say, basically, “well, Shakespeare was a genius.” I may be trivializing Schoenbaum’s contributions somewhat, but he doesn’t provide much of a counterargument to the Oxfordians, and he certainly doesn’t offer evidence in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship, which he was certainly capable of doing. I suspect that this failing may have something to do with editing. Both times he appears (briefly) on screen, he is followed by Charlton Ogburn, whose work inspired the episode, offering an impassioned rebuttal. The other scholar, A. L. Rowse, actually manages to make a few reasonable points, but these are grossly overshadowed by his apparent arrogance, egocentricity and homophobia (he uses the word “homo” twice, once modified by “roaring”–no, really, I’m not kidding). The points he makes are largely ignored in the program and probably would be by most viewers as well. In 1992, Frontline aired “Uncovering Shakespeare: An Update,” a three-hour video conference moderated by William F. Buckley. This program was more even-handed, featuring, among others, eminent Shakespeare scholars Gary Taylor and David Bevington. Still, as the transcript linked above shows, the program ended with an “ANIMATION: of the Stratford statue breaking apart and revealing the 17th Earl of Oxford.”
In his book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? James Shapiro, the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, traces the history of the authorship question. He notes that by the early 1980s the Oxfordian theory was largely moribund. It was revived partly through the ceaseless efforts of Charlton Ogburn, and it received a great deal of media exposure through two mock trials, one before American Supreme Court Justices William Brennan, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens and one before three British judges, Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, Lord Templeman and Lord Ackner. Oxford lost both cases, but the trials gave the theory media attention and legitimacy, especially since both Blackmun and Stevens showed some sympathy for the Oxfordian cause, although, since the burden of proof was on the Oxfordians, they did not feel enough evidence for his authorship had been presented. Stevens has subsequently decided that Oxford did indeed write the plays.
Certain elements of the Oxford theory are unlikely to be generally compelling except to those who are fond of conspiracy theories, but these elements tend to be missing or downplayed when the theory is mooted in such venues as the New York Times or on PBS or NPR. According to the Prince Tudor Theory, Oxford and Elizabeth I were lovers, and Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton, was their illegitimate child. This theory allows Oxfordians to sidestep the homoerotic elements of the sonnets addressed to a young man: the speaker is addressing his son, not the object of his romantic or sexual affections. Of course, there is a tiny problem: some of the poems are homoerotic, no matter how hard you try to get around it. Here, for instance, is Sonnet 20:
A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
Imagining that the speaker is a father addressing his son just adds a world of ickiness.
Speaking of ickiness, there is also the Prince Tudor Theory II (Attack of the Killer Prince Tudor Theory). According to this theory, Oxford was himself an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I (there were several others as well), making him both brother and father to Southampton (and, based on the sonnets, possibly his suitor). Who else wants a shower? Good news! Both theories will feature in Emmerich’s film. Ogburn was a proponent of at least the first part of the theory and Charles de Vere Beauclerk, earl of Buford, a descendant of Oxford’s who appeared in the Frontline episode as “Charles Vere,” supports both parts of the theory. Yet, oddly, these soap opera elements did not make it into the Frontline episode.
Ciphers and codes don’t get a great deal of mainstream attention either. Ciphers were particularly associated with the theory that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare, since Bacon did devise a cipher, but proponents of many candidates (and there are scores of candidates) have found coded messages “proving” that [fill-in-the-blank] wrote Shakespeare. Therein, of course, lies the problem: codes and ciphers have definitively proven that Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford and many others wrote Shakespeare. If you tried hard enough, you could probably even find evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Personally, I find it distressing that great works of art–Shakespeare’s plays or Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings–are regarded merely as coded messages. The artistry and beauty of the work become lost in the secret message, as if they were a simple coincidence or accident of transmission.
So which bits of the Oxford theory are compelling? Well, the fallacies, mainly. Sometimes fallacious arguments can be presented in a way that seems quite convincing. Oxfordians often cherry pick evidence that seems to support their point of view while ignoring other evidence or the general context. In particular, they try to find correspondences between incidences in Oxford’s life and details of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Individually, many of these correspondences seem weak or coincidental: King Lear had three daughters; Oxford had three (legitimate) daughters; Hamlet was on a ship overtaken by pirates; Oxford was on a ship overtaken by pirates. Put all these correspondences together, though, and you’ve got…well, strictly speaking, you have a bunch of mostly weak or coincidental apparent correspondences, but it seems as if they have greater cumulative weight, even if you can dismiss some of the claims (for instance, some of the details in the works actually appear in Shakespeare’s known sources).
Cherries are not the only things Oxfordians pick: they also pick nits. While not strictly a fallacy, nitpicking is beloved of many fringe theorists, such as creationists, 9/11 truthers and those convinced that the moon landings were a hoax. They attempt to pick as many holes as possible in the conventional viewpoint. When one point is dismissed, they move on to the next (often without acknowledging that the first point has been disproved): “Well, what about this? Okay, but what about this?”. This tactic puts proponents of the conventional view on the defensive. As with cherry picking, the sheer number of nitpicks gives the impression of weight, however flimsy the individual points may be. This tactic also helps to hide the fringe theorists’ lack of a single, coherent explanation of an alternative view. This lack is particularly noticeable amongst anti-Shakespeareans: the vast number of people who have been brought forward as the “real” Shakespeare shows that there is no single coherent counter-theory. Even among Oxfordians, there are those who accept the Prince Tudor Theory and those who reject it; those who accept Prince Tudor Theory I but not II and those who accept both.
Anti-Shakespeareans, again like many fringe theorists, also employ a combination of argumentum ad populum (AKA the appeal to popularity or the appeal to numbers) and the argument from false authority. In other words, they compile lists of people who support their point of view, particularly people who are thought to have great credibility in some area or another. This list-making tendency has led to The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, vigorously promoted by actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who both appear in Anonymous. The Declaration not only lists “verified signatories,” but “notable signatories” and “academic signatories,” as well as “past doubters.” The numbers and some of the names seem impressive, but again, there is no consensus. Among the past doubters and some of the present signatories, there are Baconians and Marlovians as well as Oxfordians. Some of the past doubters expressed more of a vague discomfort with what they saw as the disconnect between the known facts of Shakespeare’s life and the grandeur of the plays than a firm conviction that someone else was the author. The same likely holds true of some of the signatories: the document’s name expresses doubt rather than conviction.
It may also be noted that there are very few prominent scholars of Early Modern drama and poetry among the academic signatories. This is unsurprising as there is a strong democratic and anti-intellectual element to the anti-Shakespearean movement (although it is not democratic when it comes to the actual author: he must have been aristocratic or at least university-educated). Conventional scholars are portrayed as stodgy and hidebound, and, indeed, both Schoenbaum and Rowse came off as stodgy in the Frontline episode. Such scholars may even be in on it. As Shapiro says,
I’ve spent the past twenty-five years researching and teaching Shakespeare’s works at Columbia University. For some, that automatically disqualifies me from writing fairly about the controversy on the grounds that my professional investments are so great that I cannot be objective. There are a few who have gone so far as to hint at a conspiracy at work among Shakespeare professors and institutions, with scholars paid off to suppress information that would undermine Shakespeare’s claims. If so, somebody forgot to put my name on the list. (Contested Will, pp. 4-5)
While some Shakespearean scholars may indeed be stodgy or hidebound, they have also intensely studied the era, the works, the texts, theatrical history, printing history, and the typical and comparative vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation and metrical tendencies of various Early Modern poets. In other words, they are the best qualified people to make judgments about the authorship of Elizabethan and Jacobean works. It is because of the work of such scholars that we now understand to what degree Shakespeare collaborated with other writers (less than many other playwrights of his day, but much more than was previously admitted).
Another fallacy often employed by anti-Shakespeareans is the argumentum ad ignoratiam or appeal to ignorance. They make positive assumptions based on lack of evidence. We have no documentary evidence that Shakespeare ever attended a school or university; therefore, he must not have had any formal education. We have no books that we know belonged to Shakespeare, so he must not have owned many books. He didn’t mention his books in his will, so he must not have owned many books. We have no plays in his hand, and he did not mention his plays or poems in his will; therefore, he must not have written those works.
Of course the fact that we lack this information means…that we lack this information, nothing more. Is it terribly surprising that 400 year old school records don’t survive? Not really. There’s certainly nothing suspicious about it. No, there are no copies of Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s hands (with the possible exception of Sir Thomas More, which is in several hands, one of which may be Shakespeare’s). Of course, there are no copies of Shakespeare’s plays in Oxford’s hand either, but then that’s all part of the plot. No really, anti-Shakespeareans have a history of wanting to open tombs and monuments (and dredge rivers) looking for the lost manuscripts. The possibility that they are hidden behind Shakespeare’s monument is even mentioned in the Frontline episode. In reality, very few plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras survive in manuscript copies written by the author.
As for the will…well, Oxfordians get very excited about the will. Shakespeare doesn’t mention his library, his books or his plays. True, but he didn’t personally own the plays: they belonged to the acting company. Those that were published became the property of the publisher. He doesn’t mention books, but nor does he mention many specific items: the bulk of his estate was entailed. Shapiro, citing James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, notes that when Shakespeare’s son-in-law John Hall went to prove Shakespeare’s will, he apparently had with him “an inventory of the testator’s household effects” (qtd. in Shapiro, p. 50). Shapiro continues:
Whatever valuable books, manuscripts, or letters Shakespeare owned and was bequeathing to his heirs would have been listed in this inventory rather than in the will itself (which explains, as Jonathan Bate has observed, why the surviving wills of such Elizabethan notables as the leading theologian Richard Hooker and the poet Samuel Daniel fail, like Shakespeare’s, to list any books at all). (p. 50)
It is also true that Shakespeare probably did not go to Oxford or Cambridge, but then, neither did a number of other playwrights of the time, including some, like Ben Jonson, who were more classically-inclined than Shakespeare. We have no documentary evidence that Shakespeare attended grammar school, but that is because enrollment records from the King’s New School in Stratford do not survive. Because Shakespeare’s father John was an alderman and later High Bailiff, his son would have been eligible to attend the school for free. According to Shapiro, “Scholars have exhaustively reconstructed the curriculum in Elizabethan grammar schools and have shown that what Shakespeare…would have learned there…was roughly equivalent to a university degree today, with a better facility in Latin than that of a typical classics major” (p. 276).
At this point I can sense someone thinking, “Aha! But Ben Jonson said Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek.’ What about that? Huh? Gotcha!” Sometimes people take poetry way too seriously. In the first place, it is fairly common, when an artistic person is being memorialized, to suggest that his or her genius was innate. You’re unlikely to read a poem praising Beethoven for the scales he played as a child or memorializing Michelangelo’s time as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio. It’s also entirely possible that Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin was less impressive than Jonson’s, but to most of us, it would seem more than sufficient. At any rate, Jonson followed up his comment on Shakespeare’s deficiencies in classical languages by comparing him favorably with classical poets.
Finally, it’s important to have an understanding of Jonson personality. He was a talented writer and ferociously well-educated, although, like Shakespeare, he attended only grammar school, not university. He and Shakespeare were friends and rivals. Shakespeare is listed as a principal actor in Jonson’s comedy Every Man in His Humour and his tragedy Sejanus (the printed edition of this play gives an idea of just how proud of his Latin Jonson was. He included footnotes indicating his classical sources. See Stanley Wells, Shakespeare & Co., pp. 141-2). He also had an ego the size of all outdoors. In 1616, he produced an expensive folio edition of nine of his plays and many of his other poems. He called the folio Works. To include plays, which were considered pop culture ephemera, in such a format elicited some mockery. An epigram appeared addressed “To Mr Ben Jonson, demanding the reason why he called his plays works.” The epigram reads, “Pray tell me, Ben, where doth the mystery lurk; / What others call a play you call a work.” Another epigram answered the question: “Thus answered by a friend in Mr Jonson’s defence: / Ben’s plays are works, when others’ works are plays” (qtd. in Wells, p. 158). Had Jonson not produced his folio, however, it’s possible that Shakespeare’s colleagues John Hemmings and Henry Condell might not have produced the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works in 1623, in which case, roughly half the plays we know would have been lost. Fortunately, Hemmings and Condell had the sense not to call the Folio “Works.”
Jonson said a lot of things about Shakespeare, not all of them complimentary. He told Scottish poet William Drummond that “Shakespeare wanted art;” he also made disparaging comments about Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. He said derogatory things about many other poets as well. It’s possible that, even when praising Shakespeare, he couldn’t quite resist a tiny criticism. Still, in the same poem he calls Shakespeare “Sweet swan of Avon” and declares that “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
Jonson’s tendency to both criticize and compliment Shakespeare can also be seen in a more intimate setting. Many years after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson wrote in his diary,
I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted. And to justifie mine owne candor, (for I lov’d the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any.) Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d…. His wit was in his owne power; would the rule of it had beene so too. Many times hee fell into those things, could not escape laughter…. But he redeemed his vices, with his vertues. There was ever more in him to be praysed, then to be pardoned.” (Jonson, Timber: or, Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter, included in Appendix B of The Riverside Shakespeare)
Jonson knew Shakespeare well. They had worked together frequently, since Shakespeare was a shareholder in and chief playwright for London’s pre-eminent acting company, a company that paid for and staged several of Jonson’s plays. It’s inconceivable that Jonson would not have noticed that his friend and rival was a semi-literate dolt (and, yes, Oxfordians do characterize Shakespeare as barely literate) who had no concept of playwriting or stagecraft. Given Jonson’s ego, it’s hard to imagine he would have been happy keeping the secret of the true authorship of the plays (assuming he was in on the secret) and give credit to someone undeserving.
N.B. The title of this post is adapted from E. Talbot Donaldson’s fine book about Shakespeare’s use of Chaucer, The Swan at the Well. In it, Donaldson shows how even perfectly respectable Shakespearean scholars can fall into folly. Shakespeare would have known Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde from William Thynne’s The Works of Chaucer. Thynne also included Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid in this edition, with no indication that it was by a different author. Some Shakespeare scholars have concluded that Shakespeare would have thought that the Testament was Chaucer’s continuation of Troilus, even though Troilus is dead at the end of Chaucer’s work and alive again in the Testament, which takes place many years later. According to Donaldson, “It seems to me that to suppose that Shakespeare thought Chaucer wrote The Testament is to attribute to him not only little Latin and less Greek, but minimal English and no sense” (p. 76).
Donaldson, E. Talbot. The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985.
The Norton Shakespeare. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York and London: Norton, 1997. Texts based on the Oxford Edition, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.
The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Text. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1997.
Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. New York: Simon, 2010.
Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, and the Other Players in His Story. New York: Vintage, 2006.